Youssou N'Dour: I Bring What I Love
2009, PG, 100 min. Directed by Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Aug. 14, 2009
Seeming more like an electronic press kit than a bona fide documentary, this profile of Senegalese singer Youssou N’Dour is both welcome and lacking at the same time. Some early material about the career beginnings of Senegal’s favorite son and Africa’s cultural ambassador prove fascinating, but the film quickly turns its attention to the troubled release of his 2004 album Egypt and its subsequent Grammy win. The documentary then follows that narrative thread through to the end. When N’Dour is onstage, the film is infectious, so compelling is his singing and polyrhythmic beat. With Egypt, N’Dour detoured from his secular music into a celebration of his Sufi Muslim faith, which we’re told is shared by 94% of the Senegalese population. Unlike his previous albums, which were all heartily received in his homeland, Egypt was generally rejected by the Senegalese, who appeared to adopt the feelings of their religious leaders that such a prominent layman should not be meddling in Sufi theology. We witness N’Dour’s visit to Egypt to record with musicians there and snatches of their subsequent world tour in support of the album. (Although Egypt was recorded in 2001, it was not released until three years later, in light of the anti-Muslim sentiment around the world following the 9/11 attacks on the U.S.) The throughline of the film is the contradictory reaction to the album in Senegal vs. the world at large, material that is better suited to the album’s promotion than a biographical portrait. When the film sticks to biographical and career background, it is on steady ground, but when it argues the case for one particular album, it becomes promotional rather than documentary material.